Asked to review this book, which I was told was about encounters between unlikely pairs of people, I assumed it would be on the lines of Walter Savage Landor’s Imaginary Conversations. Craig Brown is our premier parodist, the best since the incomparable Max. Might his chatting twosomes include Cleopatra and Janet Street-Porter? The Marquis de Sade and Mary Whitehouse? No one could do that better, I thought; and by the end of it I’d be writhing on the Axminster, to borrow a phrase from the late Alan Coren. I couldn’t wait to split my sides.
I was quite wrong. To my surprise, the book describes real encounters. Truth being stranger than fiction, many of them are every bit as bizarre as anything Brown could have invented, and some are as funny. He has clearly put in a lot of research, and whereas someone less diligent might have corralled 20 encounters, he offers us 101.
Igor Stravinsky and Walt Disney; Marilyn Monroe and Nikita Krushchev; Tsar Nicholas II and Houdini; Rachmaninoff and Harpo Marx; Simon Dee and Archbishop Michael Ramsey — you couldn’t make it up. Or again, ‘Ted Heath sings to Walter Sickert’ or ‘Diana, Princess of Wales learns a lesson from Princess Grace’. (Sick joke: how to die in a car crash?)
I can only give a few examples of the treats in store for anyone who buys this book. Mark Twain tells the young Rudyard Kipling that he would have continued Tom Sawyer in one of two ways:
In one I would make him rise to great honor and go to Congress, and in the other I should hang him.
Madonna, asked out by Michael Jackson, rips off his sunglasses and throws them across the restaurant. ‘I’m your date now,’ she tells him, ‘and I hate it when I can’t see a man’s eyes.’
The gay poet Allen Ginsberg treats Patti Smith to a sandwich:
He leans forward in his chair and looks at her quizzically.
‘Are you a girl?’ he asks.
‘Yeah. Is that a problem?’
Ginsberg laughs. ‘I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.’
Patti senses a misunderstanding.
‘Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?’
In another vignette, Ginsberg presses nude photographs of himself and a lover into the hands of Francis Bacon, in the hope of being immortalised in a painting. Bacon has no interest in the naked Ginsberg or his boyfriend, but is fascinated by the clapped-out old mattress they are on, which makes it into one of his works.
In the next scene, Bacon boos Princess Margaret when she is singing out of tune in a private house. She ‘screeches to a halt mid-song. Mortification turns her face scarlet.’
A few pages on, Margaret is watching a very blue Genet movie with Kenneth Tynan and others. As the scenes become too risqué for royalty, Peter Cook saves the situation by starting to speak a comic commentary over the images of the film. (I seem to recall — though Brown doesn’t have it — that the Princess asks at one point, ‘Is that a foot?’ and Cook replies, ‘No, it’s eight inches.’)
Revenge on malicious critics is a subject close to my heart; and there is a blood-curdling section on what Truman Capote wanted to do to Tynan, who had dissed In Cold Blood. Tynan was to be kidnapped, blindfolded, gagged and deposited in a hospital room:
Truman was very careful with the details [according to George Plimpton]. He described how pleasant the nurses were, what a nice view there was out of the window, and that the meals were excellent. Then his voice took on an edge as he described how Tynan would be wheeled off somewhere in the clinic into surgery to have a limb or an organ removed.
Eventually, with nothing remaining except one eye and his genitals, he was to be shown pornographic films, non-stop.
Elvis Presley collects police badges. President Nixon wants to cosy up to him to win the votes of the young. Elvis turns up at the White House in ‘a large brass-
buttoned Edwardian jacket over a purple velvet tunic with matching trousers, held up by a vast gold belt’. Nixon presents him with a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs special agent badge. He adds:‘You dress kind of strange, don’t you?’ Elvis: ‘You have your show and I have mine.’
I especially enjoyed the section headed ‘Marcel Proust gets rid of James Joyce’. Brown gives us no fewer than eight versions of the encounter. Here are two of them.
As told by the Duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre:
PROUST: I have never read your works, Mr Joyce.
JOYCE: I have never read your works, Mr Proust.
As told by James Joyce many years later to Jacques Mercanton:
Proust would talk only of duchesses, while I was more concerned with their chambermaids.
I rescue one line from Simon Dee’s interview with Archbishop Ramsey. Asked what he thought hell would be like, the Primate replied: ‘Hell is stewing in one’s own juice.’
In a hilarious scene, Barry Humphries, expelled from a restaurant for dropping his trousers in front of Lord Snowdon, rings the peer from a callbox, pretending to be his mother, Lady Rosse.
There are a few encounters Brown has missed that one would have liked to see included: the cartoonist Harry Furniss and Lewis Carroll, whose Sylvie and Bruno he illustrated; Swinburne patting baby Robert Graves on the head; the columnist Alan Brien being introduced to Evelyn Waugh by Randolph Churchill at White’s, provoking one of the novelist’s nastiest anti-Semitic outbursts.
This is much more than a comedy book. I have a feeling that Craig Brown has reached the stage that John Betjeman reached — of not wanting to be forever regarded as a ‘funny man’. (It is surely only an accident of fate that our other Old Etonian wit, Boris Johnson, is Mayor of London and Brown isn’t.) Brown is one of the best book reviewers writing today — in the Cyril Connolly class, I’d say. He doesn’t just address the book in hand; he writes around it, drawing on a rich store of allusion and analogy. And the weapon of humour is always at the ready to strafe the pompous, the sententious and insincere with fusillades of delicious raillery. Oh, but please give us an Imaginary Conversations, won’t you, Craig?
I’d like to see a spoof by Craig
Of talk ’twixt Pitt and William Hague,
Or any other two you choose —
Say, Humphrey Bogart and Tom Cruise,
Or Mary Queen of Scots with Dame
Antonia Fraser in the frame,
Or Edmund Kean and Richard Gere.
As parodist he has no peer,
But if he wants to play it straight,
We’ll still lay laurels on his pate
And pay our sixteen ninety-nine
For every well-delivered line.
No other scribe can wrest the crown
From unsurpassable CRAIG BROWN.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 15, 2011